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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY: Golf Saudi CEO Majed Al-Sorour rolled out the welcome mat for 132 players — a much stronger field than last year’s lineup — who will vie for total prize money of $3.5 million in the Saudi International.
“We are pleased to have everybody here. The players, they come and enjoy our tournament,” Al-Sorour told a press conference on Tuesday ahead of this week’s second edition of the European Tour event at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
“We’re pretty excited. The championship, the Saudi International has been put on the world map, in the European Tour. We are really excited for the world ranking. Our field is really strong,” said Al-Sorour, who also discussed the Kingdom’s golf development program.
“Our main pillar out of the six pillars is mass participation. It’s inclusive. When we focus on mass participation, we did not stop at the development of the national team. We want to develop the full ecosystem of golf. Some of the jobs we are trying to create are the customer service and customer care, caddy master, agronomy and greenskeeping and the multiple different layers of getting into the field of agronomy and natural resources,” he said.
Also gracing the press conference on the second day of tournament week Tuesday were defending champion and world No.5 Dustin Johnson and world No.1 Brooks Koepka as well as the Saudi trio and local favorites professional Othman Almulla and amateurs Saud Alsharif and Faisal Salhab.
The US duo headlines one of the strongest lineups on the Middle East leg of the European Tour, including 10 major winners.
“I’m looking forward to a big year. I feel like the game is in pretty good form,” said Johnson.
“I’m really pleased with how I played last year here, I like the golf course and enjoyed myself. I’m excited to be back for this tournament. But because you won at a golf course, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win again. I’m going to have to work for it this week.”
Koepka is returning to the Kingdom after another successful season that saw him win a fourth major crown.
The 29-year-old is continuing his return to competition following a knee injury that kept him out of action at the end of last season.
“I had three months off, so there was no point in having a holiday. It was more of a work thing in my off-season to get my game ready. It felt good in Abu Dhabi, it felt good in Dubai and it now feels good here,” said Koepka.
Both players believe the 7,010-yard par 70 Royal Greens & Country Club layout facing the players this week has made major advances.
“It looks in incredible shape just as it was last year. Any time you can give a course an extra year to develop, you’re going to see progression,” added Koepka.
“The greens are a lot faster. The rough’s a lot thicker. It’s settled in nicely.”
The course stretches along the spectacular Red Sea coastline, giving Dustin Johnson a chance to indulge another sporting passion before his practice round this morning — scuba diving.
“I had no idea you could do that in Saudi Arabia. Last year, I met a friend who lived here and took us out on a scuba dive, so that was something I was looking forward to doing again.”
For the Saudi trio, the tournament, which also features US stars Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed as well as European heavyweights Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry, Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood, will be one of the most challenging weeks of their sporting lives.
They all looked confident while focusing on the positives as they prepare for the blue- ribbon event.
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